Opinion: Why Tampa is seeking ties with Cuba

By José Valiente
Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce

For over half a century, the United States has imposed trade sanctions against Cuba, our neighbor a little less than 100 miles to the south.  Tampa has a long history with Cuba, dating back to 1539 when Hernando de Soto sailed from Cuba to Tampa Bay. As early as the 17th century, Cuban fisherman would frequent the Tampa Bay area on a seasonal basis, and, over time, the maritime connection became well established. In the 1850s, Captain James McKay established regular commercial shipping service from Florida to Cuba through Tampa. In the 1880s Cuban immigrants established Tampa’s Ybor City neighborhood as the cigar capital of the United States. On November 26, 1891 Jose Martí delivered his famous Con Todos y Para el Bien de Todos speech in Tampa.

On two recent trips to the island, 50 business and community leaders had the opportunity to make “experiential learning” visits to Cuba, the result of more than seven years of discussion and effort coupled with an intense 18 months of actual application process for the Chamber to make the trip a reality. Our primary goals were to support the efforts and hard work of Tampa International Airport landing Cuba flights, and providing our members a chance to  experience the country first-hand. Both trips went smoothly; being able to fly directly from Tampa was of great convenience, and having these flights positions our area favorably as future discussion on U.S.–Cuban relations occurs. Following our lead, the Orlando Regional Chamber of Commerce is also planning to take a trip to Cuba and fly out of Tampa International Airport.

While in Cuba, we met with the Hon. John Caulfield, Chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Cuba. With the current embargo between the U.S. and Cuba, our countries do not have formal diplomatic relations. In their absence, the Interests Section serves as the official U.S. presence to our neighbor so close to Florida. Chief Caulfield honored our group by hosting us in the Interests Section home [the ambassador’s residence?] and spending considerable time with us discussing the relationship and how he represents us to Cuba.

Back in Tampa, last month we hosted a luncheon for José Ramón Cabañas, head of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, who spent several days in Tampa as a guest of U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, a strong supporter of ending the U.S. trade embargo with Cuba. While in Tampa, he encouraged dialogue between our countries to help bring about that change.

The Chamber will continue to support the Airport’s efforts to make Tampa the U.S. hub for travel to Cuba, and we encourage ongoing opportunities to learn and understand Cuban culture and its people. We are a gateway to Cuba, and interest in people-to-people travel from Tampa continues to grow, which is a positive step towards future discussions.

José E. Valiente, CPA, is the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce Prosperity Leader